April 22, 1915 – March 19, 1998
“Did Jesus notice you under a fig tree?” A smile brightened Sister Nathaniel’s face, and she gave a quick repartee, “No, it was under a maple tree.”
For certain the wind-swept Canadian prairies bore no fig trees, but the hearts of a generation of future Dominicans would always be moved by “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Like her future patron, Anna Mary Lenhardt was too guileless for fanciful dreams to be anything but herself, a common sense girl of common sense stock, who felt a tug at her heart and knew she had been noticed.
The Dominican tree in Grand Rapids, Michigan was welcoming strong graftings from distant places. It had only recently branched out to reopen the separate school of St. Henry’s Parish in Melville, Saskatchewan in 1928, and the white-habited pioneers from the United States were eager to send home some first fruits of the new mission. In 1931 they began to send girls to an aspirancy high school program in the States. Anna Mary was one of them.
Alexander and Josepha Neumann Lenhardt raised a family of eight children on a few acres of fertile land at the edge of Melville. Alexander’s employment for the Canadian National Railway afforded him an adequate livelihood and intermittent time with his family. His wife, Josepha, like the valiant woman of the Old Testament, devoted all her time with German thrift and godliness to the care of her home and family. They were a sturdy unit of neighborhood and parish. Their sixth child, Anna Mary, grew up with a sense of doing all things well, “like my father insisted,” she often said. She was born April 22, 1915 and baptized June 1 of the same year. Her childhood and school days passed quite uneventfully, except for the arrival of the Sisters. Her admiration focused in particular on Sister Flavian Murphy and Sister Mercedes Dargis, her new teachers and undoubtedly strong vocation models. It was not surprising that Anna Mary left home and St. Henry’s for her high school years as an aspirant at Marywood. A thriving Aspirancy was only one of Mother Eveline Mackey’s efforts for community growth despite the trying Depression years. Sister Edith Welzel and Sister Leonora Gallagher were to stamp their memories on many products of this effort. Following a year of postulancy that began in 1935, Anna Mary was received August 4, 1936 along with five others from Canada – a banner year for Canada! She was given the name Sister Mary Nathaniel of Mary Immaculate: the title to honor the Oblate pastors of St. Henry’s.
The difficulties of obtaining teaching certification were met partially by sending native Sisters back to Canada for their training. So it was that following her religious profession, August 5, 1937, Sister Nathaniel and her long-time friend and classmate, Sister Bridget Hall, enrolled at Moose Jaw Normal for two years of Canadian preparation, following which they joined the St. Henry School community. For six years Sister Nathaniel taught grades four through six, beginning thirty-five years of an elementary teaching career. The exacting standards of Canadian education served her well, when she returned to the United States in 1945 to teach in schools throughout Michigan and New Mexico. Preserved in the Melville annals is an enviable evaluation of the neophyte teacher from the government inspector—“a very good type of young teacher. . . pleasant and friendly in manner . . . her teaching is bright and interesting.”
The summer of 1940 brought Sister home to Michigan to prepare for Final Profession, which she made August 5, 1940. “Father” Lenhardt’s CNR passes came in handy for the limp convent purses. Otherwise, the Canadian summers were spent like those of the other Sisters, if not studying, then in teaching Catechism and preparing children for the Sacraments in outlying missions. Sometimes two-by-two, but oftentimes alone, the experiences were memorable, but satisfying. For Sister Nathaniel, the Canadian sojourn was brightened by closeness to her family. In the annals are frequent references to visiting Mrs. Lenhardt’s garden and the largesse provided from her kitchen. A typical gift was Mr. Lenhardt’s gift of pickles from Manitoba.
Throughout her teaching days Sister Nathaniel would in turn draw other apostolic souls to the Lord’s harvest fields, evidenced in priestly vocations she fostered and supported in their ministries by her prayers. Until the end of her life she treasured their correspondence and little casual visits.
In 1974, Sister’s concern for the sick and aging led her to a new ministry at Aquinata Hall as a nurse’s aide and in the care of the Sisters’ personal things. Many a habit was prepared for laundering and many a black veil freshened. Failing health determined her semi-retirement to Marywood, where she continued her Martha homemaking concerns. Sister Leonarda Ruff in particular depended more and more on her tall younger friend—a trait that Sister Bridget Hall recalls as of long standing from novitiate days. Sister Leonarda made it plain who was her choice assistant in the sacristy.
In November 1991, Sister Nathaniel decided it was time to take up residence at Aquinata Hall to prepare quietly for another journey.
On March 19, 1998, God saw her straight and tall under the Living Tree, and called her Home. May she share in the promise to her patron to “see the heavens opened and the angels of God descending on the Son of Man.” With all the hosts of heaven may she welcome us someday to join her again!
Sister Nathaniel is survived by her sister Elizabeth Dunaj; her sister-in-law Mrs. George (Eleanor) Lenhardt both of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; nieces, nephews and many friends.
Entered eternal life on March 19, 1998 at the age of 82 after 61 years of religious life
We commend Sister Nathaniel to your prayers.